Access flooding information on Disaster Resources.

February 1, 2015

INDUSTRY INNOVATION: WG Takes Proactive Position in Technology Sector

In his January column in this magazine, Western Growers President and CEO Tom Nassif told readers it is the association’s goal “to advance technology innovation in the fresh produce industry thereby improving our ability to produce more food in more efficient ways.”

He said the association is not willing to sit back and let others do the heavy lifting.  It needs to be a catalyst in bringing about change, and will seek out and work with technology firms to identify and develop solutions for the industry.  “Western Growers will be participating…as a strategic partner lending expertise, involvement by staff and members, support and an investment of dollars.  This is an exciting endeavor and an exciting time for agriculture.  A new age of agriculture is taking shape; one of opportunity and endless possibility.”

Nassif’s call to arms in January followed a similar beating of the drums by 2014 WG Chairman of the Board Bruce Taylor of Taylor Farms at the association’s Annual Meeting in Las Vegas in November in his Chairman’s Report.  “We have to change how we go about things,” he said, noting that in the future, his descendants shouldn’t be facing the same problems the industry has today.

Taylor said the industry has been fighting the same battles for years, but now it needs a new direction.  “A definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

He asked the audience to help “accelerate innovation.”  He believes that through collaboration the industry can solve its most difficult challenges with 21st century technology.

The common tone of Taylor and Nassif’s comments were not by coincidence.  Western Growers has set itself on a course to find technology solutions to help solve the industry’s pressing problems.  New solutions are needed to feed the billions that will be walking this earth in the next generation.  The same land being farmed in the same manner isn’t going to do the trick.

Hank Giclas, senior vice president of strategic planning, science and technology, said WG’s technology focus has been incubating over the past year.  “The Western Growers staff has been charged by the association leadership to develop programs that will identify and bring to the industry new ideas and new technologies that address the concerns of the fresh produce industry.”

Giclas said the WG board members have discussed the proposition throughout the past year and staff has been engaged in fashioning a proactive program.  “There are many different fronts on which technological solutions are needed.”

The WG science and technology executive said the ultimate goal for farmers is to continue to produce an abundance of food while reducing their footprint and using fewer resources.  So as the WG staff began exploring what the association could do, Giclas said it became clear that technological solutions in many key areas would be the answer.  Reducing the environmental footprint and the compliance burden of growers, increasing yields, reducing waste and creating more nutritious food are all worthy goals that must be achieved by the next generation of farmers.

“That was the challenge put before us and the Western Growers staff has been working diligently to create a program where we can use our time, our talent and our resources to help the industry find solutions.”

Giclas said Western Growers has set its mind to becoming a leader in this process.  “That is what is setting our play on this issue.  Many associations are doing what they can to sift through the myriad of technology vendors and to help the industry gain knowledge of what’s out there.  By and large it is then up to the industry itself to judge the merits of these technologies.”

Giclas said Western Growers is going to take it several steps further.  “We are approaching it differently; we are working with our leadership and members to identify the priority challenges they face where technology may provide a solution and then we will seek out technology and innovation to address those challenges.  Western Growers will remain poised to invest what is necessary, to vet, accelerate, and nurture those ideas that have viability and then to connect those technology firms with key industry mentors.”

Giclas said Western Growers is currently examining many different avenues to facilitate technological advances.  He said that several ideas are being discussed and many may be utilized including such vehicles as “pitch events” or “shark tanks” where Western Growers members would hear and judge new innovations.  When viable technologies are identified through vehicles such as these, a next step would be to help these innovators take ideas to a “proof of concept” stage by engaging them with WG members as mentors or coaches.

While the former is a means of seeking out existing ideas and technologies focused on key problems, another potential, and not mutually-exclusive approach, would be to actually generate new ideas by offering challenge grants or holding “hacks.”  This approach would define the problem and provide specifications for a solution or technology.  In the case of a challenge grant, a cash award would be offered to the innovator who solves the problem to industry specifications.  Giclas said many government agencies utilize this type of approach—the most well known being the DARPA Grand Challenge in which the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency offered up to a $1 million prize to innovators who could develop an unmanned vehicle that would navigate an arduous course through the Mojave Desert in a defined amount of time.  The first year, no vehicle completed the course so no award was paid, but much was learned.  In the second year, several vehicles completed the course and the fastest team won.

He said another approach was the “hack” where programmers gather to create software to address problems, increase efficiency or develop other applications that may reduce cost or burden or provide value to members. Usually these events are 24-hour work sessions where you bring in some young programmers, “fill them with energy drinks and pizza, pump in a background pulse of indie music and set them loose to tackle a problem.”  At the end of the event, teams pitch their ideas and winners are chosen and showcased.  Sometimes a cash award or awards are also offered.  Novel technological solutions often spring from these gatherings.

Giclas reiterated that Western Growers is not just going to be a third-party participant.  It is committed to accelerating innovation and solving problems.  “When we find ideas with potential, we will seek out or provide the resources to ensure their success.  That may include seed money, connections, or other support.  The idea is to generate ideas, put these people in the field with a grower or a group of growers and nurture the idea and let them prove the concepts in a real world environment all the while with growers taking a hands-on approach.”

This, Western Growers believes, is the recipe for success: address a need, tailor it to the industry, develop the solution and define the market.  Giclas said in his discussions with investors they have all expressed excitement about this approach because it demonstrates a clear connection between the innovators and their potential customer base.  Giclas said for the most part, the industry has been inundated with technology experts “that I characterize as having a solution in search of a problem.”

The WG approach will define the problem and search and accelerate a technological solution.

Though many of these ideas might seem a bit foreign and they are certainly not the way the industry has traditionally operated over the past 100 years that could be a good thing if Taylor’s definition of insanity is accurate.